Response to Comments in Parliament on Caning, Exercise, and Prison Labour

1. Caning

Last week, Member of Parliament Leon Perera asked if prisoners had to say ‘thank you’ to their caners after they were caned.

Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam replied that “there was no such requirement”.

Caning in Singapore’s prisons is an extremely cruel punishment: prisoners are strapped almost naked to a frame and hit by a rotan cane which splits the skin and causes bleeding. Many prisoners are unable to lie on their backs for weeks after being caned.

they are happily enjoying you getting whacked,” Ken says. “It’s sick.”

We have received independent accounts from ex-prisoners who told us that they were told to thank their caners for inflicting this brutal punishment on them. We hope that with this issue being raised in Parliament, the practice will indeed come to an end.

Ken told TJC that during this process, there are people who sit on a raised platform. “With a shield lah, a window, and they are happily enjoying you getting whacked,” Ken says. “It’s sick.”

“But what is the most sick process of this whole thing, do you know that after you are caned, there’s a panel of people watching you, three people, do you know that after you get caned, it is mandatory for you to look at them, and say thank you?”

2. Exercising

Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim told Parliament that prisoners are prohibited from physical exercise in their cells for security reasons.

He said that some inmates may claim to be exercising in their cell while actually shadow-boxing or sparring, or giving tips and teaching others how to fight and attack opponents.

He asserted that this would pose challenges to maintaining good order and discipline in prison, and added that there is not enough space for vigorous exercise without affecting others or intruding into their personal space.

This prohibition is unreasonable as it assumes that prisoners are prone to fighting in their cells.

Instead of prohibiting exercise, we should examine the root cause of conflict.

Cell conditions are very poor. Cells are bare and dark, with no beds. Prisoners sleep on a hard floor. A 4-person cell is about 2.3m by 2.3m, and prisoners are confined in this environment for 23 hours on weekdays and all day on weekends, with little to keep them occupied.

Such an environment builds tension, restlessness and frustration, making it easy for conflict to escalate and prisoners to suffer from poor mental health.

3. Prison Labour

According to Minister Shanmugam, prison labour (‘work programmes’) is meant for prisoners to gain useful skills, develop positive work ethics and prepare them to join the workforce upon release.

He revealed that prisoners are paid an allowance of between $0.30 and $2.60 per hour, and that participation is voluntary.

The allowance, he said, is not meant to be a wage but serves to ‘motivate inmates to perform well and develop themselves while on work programmes.’

He revealed that prisoners are paid an allowance of between $0.30 and $2.60 per hour.

This raises some concerns: Which companies are profiting off prison labour when prisoners are paid as low as $0.30 per hour? How are these companies chosen?

The Minister’s response also raises questions about other aspects of prison work.

Are working conditions in line with existing labour protections? What if an accident happens? Is there work injury compensation? Does the quality of work actually support reintegration and work opportunities post-release?

Prison labour must be seen and treated as work.

Those who engage in labour, both for the prisons and for external organisations, should be paid a decent wage and be accorded labour protections equal to that given to other workers, This will allow prisoners to provide for their families, which will, in turn, facilitate the healing of familial ties and rehabilitation.

The claim that work programmes are voluntary has little meaning if prisoners are caught choosing between unfair work conditions and staying confined in their cells.

Using prisoners’ labour for profit or to meet prison functions (laundry, cooking prisoners’ meals, etc) with little or no regard to wage and labour protections is state-mediated worker exploitation.

It also exacerbates existing structural inequality: people who are from marginalised socioeconomic backgrounds disproportionately end up in prison. Continuing their oppression by excluding them from the most basic workers’ rights is unconscionable.

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